Democrats Fear Blowout Effect in Battlegrounds

Posted September 22, 2010 at 6:48pm

With polls showing Republicans well-positioned to win the Senate and gubernatorial contests in both Ohio and Pennsylvania, House Democratic strategists are increasingly worried about the downballot drag the top of the ticket could have in the two battleground states.

Quinnipiac University released polling over the past week that found Republicans ahead by double digits in the gubernatorial races in both states and in the Ohio Senate contest. In the Pennsylvania Senate race, former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) led Rep. Joe Sestak (D) by 7 points in a poll released Wednesday.

Democrats are worried that the enthusiasm gap among voters in the two states could be exacerbated if by Election Day Republicans appear headed for blowout victories in the marquee races.

“There’s no question it’s a problem. When the top of the ticket is hurting, it absolutely makes it more difficult for a Democrat in a swing district to win,” said a Democratic strategist who has worked in both states. “Voters will be looking at the gubernatorial race and going, ‘If [Ohio Gov. Ted] Strickland is down 10 points, why the heck am I going to go out and vote?'”

As the party campaign committees decide where to spend and move their money over the next six weeks, their competing interests at different levels — House, Senate, governor — are likely to be highlighted. Spending at one level could have a big effect on candidates at another.

Between the two states, there are about 12 Democratic-held House seats that are considered highly competitive.

“I think Pennsylvania and Ohio are probably the most brutal states for Democrats this year because they have so much to lose,” said Tom Jensen, director of the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. “Republicans may win as many as half the seats they need to pick up the majority in Big Ten states.”

In Pennsylvania, Sestak has trailed Toomey in every public poll since mid-July, although Democratic strategists still say the race will tighten as the election nears.

In the gubernatorial race, Attorney General Tom Corbett (R) has led Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato (D) in every poll, usually by double digits.

At least six Democratic incumbents in the Keystone State face tough re-election races, with Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper and Paul Kanjorski viewed as most vulnerable. Reps. Christopher Carney, Mark Critz, Patrick Murphy and Jason Altmire are in races that both parties are watching to see how they develop.

In Ohio, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher has trailed former Rep. Rob Portman (R) in the Senate race in every poll since July and by double digits in three of the last six polls. It’s nearly the same scenario for Strickland, who is running behind former Rep. John Kasich (R).

In races further down the ballot, freshman Democratic Reps. Mary Jo Kilroy and Steve Driehaus are likely to lose regardless of what happens at the top of the ticket, but Democrats such as Reps. Zack Space and Betty Sutton — who are in competitive races but are viewed as having an edge — could be swept under by the drag at the top of the ticket.

“If Ted Strickland and Lee Fisher lose badly, it will be difficult for Democratic Congressional candidates in closely contested districts to prevail in the state,” said Peter Brown, associate polling director at Quinnipiac University. “If the Republicans sweep the major statewide offices in Ohio this November, that will obviously deprive them of a governor whose influence can help President Obama carry the key state in 2012.”

Both parties are keenly aware of the implications that statewide drubbings will have for Democrats next cycle, when President Barack Obama and first-term Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) all face re-election. The states are regular battlegrounds on the presidential trail, and Obama’s approval rating in both states is 40 percent or lower, according to Quinnipiac.

“States that have moved dramatically for the president are now moving dramatically against him,” said Republican pollster Gene Ulm, a partner with Public Opinion Strategies, citing much of the industrial Midwest, including Pennsylvania.

The president’s travel schedule illustrates the importance the two states hold. According to the Ohio Democratic Party, Obama has made 10 trips to the state since his inauguration and has at least one more scheduled, for Oct. 17. Obama made his seventh trip to Pennsylvania on Monday, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, who tracks the president’s travel.

Vice President Joseph Biden was in Ohio as recently as Monday, when he made fundraising stops in Dayton and Akron on behalf of Strickland. President Bill Clinton made two visits to Ohio this month, one for Fisher and the other Strickland.

The Ohio Democratic Party has been as proactive as any state party in readying its strategy for the difficult cycle and remains confident despite the difficult national climate.

“National committee support has been and will continue to be incredibly strong for Ohio through Election Day,” said Doug Kelly, executive director of the Ohio Democratic Party. “Gov. Strickland is just 3 points down, we’re pounding our opponents with ads and on-the-ground organizing, and the Ohio Democratic Party is running the largest coordinated campaign in midterm history.”

While candidates spend their own money on ads, the state party tasked itself with building a national fundraising network, as well as an extensive mobilization and get-out-the-vote effort with a sizable field staff numbering in the triple digits.

Along with receiving help from the national committees, labor plays big in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Ohio Democratic Party has raised millions of dollars from labor groups, and the state has 2.1 million labor households.

Labor support will also come in handy if, by chance, one of the national party committees decides to pull out.

As a clue about how the various campaign committees view both states, the Democratic Governors Association has so far invested $2.8 million in Ohio, and, according to a source in the state, has promised to spend as much as it takes to get Strickland re-elected. The DGA has also given $1 million to Onorato in Pennsylvania.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has so far stayed out of Ohio, but it launched its first independent expenditure effort of the cycle in Pennsylvania. The committee began airing its third television ad in the state last week, a nearly $500,000 buy that brought the committee’s total spending there so far to $2.5 million. The DSCC also upped its total commitment for Pennsylvania last week from $5.7 million to $6.2 million.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made initial TV time reservations in five Ohio districts and six Pennsylvania districts. The Hotline reported Monday that the DCCC shifted its reservation time in Kilroy’s Columbus-based district, pushing it back to the last two weeks before the election.

The Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America are also major players, especially in funding, staffing and organizing coordinated campaigns in the states.

If anything, Democrats in Ohio and Pennsylvania expect the committees to increase their spending, not cancel it. But if it does happen, one Republican source with knowledge of the area says, it could have a trickle-down effect in favor of GOP House candidates.

If Democrats at the top of the ticket aren’t performing well and the committees pull out, advertising costs and available slots could be affected, and that could boost underfunded Republican challengers, the GOP source said.

“Those are the kinds of things that can make up small margins of votes and put a few extra seats in play that weren’t really in play,” the source said.

Ulm said there will be no magic bullet for Democrats as they balance priorities among their campaign committees.

“They are going to have to practice triage. They are going to have to do what Republicans had to do in 2006,” he said. “It’s about saving the savable and writing off those that aren’t savable.”